August 29, 2009

Compassion for oneself

The issue of self-directed compassion has been coming up in a variety of ways lately -- in my reading [in Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy and in Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego]; in sermons at the mission; and in discussion at Loaves & Fishes.

As a longtime believer in ego reduction, I come at this with bias against being soothing toward oneself [or, as I term it, "the dastardly deed of giving yourself a pass for doing a bunch of stupid shit].

But studies this century on ego have changed the terminology and a sense of what the ego might be and what stable egos might be like. Now, perhaps, ego at its "best," is either quiet or silent, and that it might be good, for some, if not all, to direct compassion toward oneself.
Input from the mission

While matters of outwardly-directed love and compassion come up rarely at the mission [either in the milieu of Homeless World or in the preachers' sermons], they do come up in rather weird ways. One usually-hate-mongering preacher said something I've been mulling over: "God doesn't love you (and everyone else, equally) because of who YOU are, but because of who HE is." The line got hardy approval from the congregants. [Congregants DO hear of how they are much loved, but not about how they should themselves love.]

My immediate reaction was "What the hell!? If He doesn't love us for who WE are, individually, but wholly because He is who He is, then He must love us conceptually, and not for ourselves. And, truly, one can only love a being for his/her unique constituent of qualities; otherwise, it ain't love."

[But, then, God being God, knowing us from the inside, as the Christian preachers claim, He may ONLY be able to know us as particular persons and NOT as conceptions. He knows the numbers of hairs on the head of each of us, it says in the Bible (Matthew 10:30 & Luke 12:7.)]

Later thoughts of mine on the matter were even less damning: We can evoke love of others. We have that power. We can direct ourselves toward loving our enemies (as Jesus famously instructed), for example. At least we might if they are not so narcissistic that they are constantly game-playing. [I don't think a mentally healthy person can love someone whose authentic self is fully shielded. "There's no there there," as is said by psychiatrists about sociopaths.] Still, I insist loving the particular person is necessary for it to be love; people (as opposed to God) cannot love someone conceptially.

From what I understand, when Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself," one interpretation is that he meant "love they neighbor instead of thyself." For him to have meant "love thy neighbor in the same manner as one loves thyself" -- which is the usual interpretation -- presents curious problems. For one thing, we don't know ourself in the same way we know others. While we may think of ourself in the third-person, we never experience ourself in the third-person. Our relationship with ourself is radically different than the relationship we have with others. We can't bestow love to ourself in the same way we can to others; the two "loves" are wholly, radically, spectacularly different beasts.

It's a more than a little like comparing making love to masturbation. These are greatly different experiences because you can't be "the other" to yourself.

To my way of seeing things, compassion necessarily comprises an element of ignorance that we don't have about ourself. [While we are ignorant about things relating to ourself, when we are compassionate toward ourself, the same "ourself" that is bestowing the compassion is receiving the compassion, thus it is fully informed. Compassion we give to ourself is directly, overtly twisting what we immediately beforehand had seen as the truth.

Compassion toward another is given from a different viewpoint, different worldview and from a base of different data about the situation than what "the other" is going by. Compassion, because of its otherness, is enlarging. Compassion you direct at yourself is skewing and screwy and very much NOT a second opinion, from another perspective.
Beyond the self

In their paper "Beyond the Individualistic Self" by Drs. Korsgaard and Meglino in Transcending Self-Interest, the writers/researchers tell us that those who attempt to be both self-regarding and other-regarding end up with conflicted decisions and end up choosing self over other. Thus, only those who are "Other Oriented" benefit from full-throttle compassion.






Mindlessness Thanatos

Other Orientation Quiet Ego


Rational Self-Interest Noisy Ego

Collective Rationality Phobos

In the chart at right, you can see the four types of egos that result from different combinations of high or low interest in self or others.

Mindlessness is a category that includes individuals who are low in both self-and other-interest. This mode of behavior is posited to involve functioning in obedience to commonsense rules. Behavior has been documented extensively in research on automaticity [Bargh & Chartrand: "The unbearable automaticity of being."] and mindlessness [Ellen Langer on Mindlessness, or, see her 1989 book Mindfulness].

Rational Self-Interest [High in self-interest; Low in other-interest] is egoism in its most-rigorous form (i.e., the "noisy" ego). Individuals pursue only self-serving goals. This type of reasoning underlies classical economics [unfettered capitalism!] and value expectancy models of attitudes and motivation [Ajzen: "Nature and operation of attitudes"].

Collective Rationality [High in both self- and other-interest] Individuals engage in rational judgment. While trying to maximize outcomes for both self and others, self-oriented goals triumph according to studies [That is, a self-serving bias wins out [Bazerman et al:. "Why good accountants do bad audits," in Harvard Business Review.] [Also, see DeDreu et al: "Motivated information processing, strategic choice, and the quality of negotiated agreement."]

Other Orientation [Low in self-interest; High in other-interest] Individuals are focused on benefitting others and apply principles or norms of behavior to meet these goals, obviating the need to consider personal consequences. [The "other" may involve a pair or group within which the self is subsumed.] This is the 'extreme' in quieting the ego. [See Meglino & Korsgaard "The Role of Other Orientation in Reactions to Job Characteristics" in the Journal of Management.]

But another view comes from Dr. Kristin Neff [in her Transcending Self-Interest paper "Self-Compassion: Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of a Separate Self-Concept" and from Dr. Paul Gilbert, editor of Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy.

Writes Neff, "Self-compassion can be thought of as a type of openheartedness in which the boundaries between self and other are softened -- all human beings are worthy of compassion, the self included. In this way, self-compassion represents a quiet ego, because one's experience is not strongly filtered through the lens of a separate self."

I'm not sure I understand Neff, nor that she makes a good case for self-compassion, generally, but in case histories in Paul Gilbert's book I can see how some individuals are aided in overcoming trauma by soothing themselves with inward-directed compassion. For most of us, though, I have to think that loving ourselves is necessarily non-compassionate because of the self-other conflict that ensues.

At her website, Self Compassion, Dr. Neff writes, "When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems. They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection."

Well, maybe so. Certainly Dr. Neff has researched the matter extensively. But I cannot see that people applying what they want to be compassion toward themselves doesn't become, really, self pity. One's relationship with oneself is, necessarily, self-oriented so only self pity occurs when one feels sorry for his- or her-self. Feeling sorry for others is the 'road in' for having compassion for others. Feeling sorry for oneself always, it seems to me, becomes self pity.


tinythinker said...

Two quick thoughts - Neither "self" nor "other" are appropriate prefixes for genuine compassion. It is indivisible.

As for God quote, the way I had heard it used (I don't know if this is typical or not) is that it means that we can't earn or deserve God's love. Instead, God is the basis/susbstance of love, and hence by nature loves every individual.

sheepdog said...

What is the difference between kindness and compassion?

Kindness gives to another.

Compassion knows no "other".

Tom Armstrong said...

tinythinker and sheepdog,

Perhaps you'll both like this quote of Thomas Merton: "Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things."

I agree (with you both, I think) that compassion breaks down the boundries between oneself and others. But, I still see it as being 'evoked' and more specific than general.

Would like to hear more from you, tinythinker, on what "genuine compasson" is.

There is a quote in the book of John that is often truncated to "God is Love." The full verse [1 John 4:8] is "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love." Of course, this is the same God that is prepared to throw billions of people into the Lake of Fire for not confessing that Jesus was born of a virgin. And on Judgment Day will say to non-believers "I never knew you," just before pulling the lever on the trapdoor. But I digress.

Kyle said...

You know I always felt compassion really came from seeing yourself in others, feeling empathy and acting in a kind way without judgment towards the other person for how they act.

But I don't know, I think people confuse love and compassion. I think the way it was meant in the bible is as compassion for others, not love in the sense that we think about it today.

Tom Armstrong said...

Kyle, In the blogpost, I use compassion and love almost interchangeably, as I oughtn't. But in the sence I think of them, they are very similar.

Daniel Goleman talks about three different types of empathy, which I posted about last May. He deliniates "cognitive empathy"; "emotional empathy"; and empathic concern."

Empathic Concern is pretty close to compassion: You not only come to understand and feel the other's distress, you are motivated to help.

In the paper "The understanding and experience of compassion: Aquinas and the Dalai Lama," by Judith Barad [which can be found in full-text in some academic-file databases that readers of this comment probably have access to from home through their public library], the discussion really focuses on "agape" [from the Greek] which is the word St. Paul used for the Christian love that Christ evoked/described. [Aquinas uses "mercy" as his translation in his writings; the Dalai Lama uses "compassion."]

There is semantical confusion in the blogpost. You are not likely to need to be compassionate toward an enemy who is happy and powerful, for example.

Kyle said...

"There is semantical confusion in the blogpost. You are not likely to need to be compassionate toward an enemy who is happy and powerful, for example."

Very good point Tom.

Geoff said...

Wow this is really cool. I have been close to living on the streets lately as I struggle to get my film (strangely about a homeless character) off the ground.

I was forced to accept money from friends and strangers who believed in me. It was very humbling.

Because they had given me money when someone in need then asked me for assistance I felt compelled to give to them what I could...

I think we struggle to "give" to people in need because of the belief that we have earnt everything we have? I am not sure if this is true...


Common sense said...

From a Buddhist perspective, real Buddhism and not American Psychological Buddhism, then compassion for one's self is simply more of the same; ignorance.

While we all do stupid stuff from time to time due to our ignorance, anything in a positive direction (e.g. self compassion) is also ignorance.

The real answer for all the dumb things we have done is to let it go, and do nothing (other than anything meaningful that we can do, like apologies).

As for god (or dog in the mirror) then it's not the concept of god that is ridiculous but what human beings make him/her/it out to be.

First of all they make him out to be another being (big flaw, which means that he is also dumb at times and on his way to his own funeral). Secondly, it turns out that he is merely a janitor stuck in a heavenly theme park who, among other things, has a terrible temper.

Thus, most religious people who believe in god have a poor opinion of their supposed saviour. One would think that any entity who was truly pure and worthy of respect would be beyond anger and love and would in fact own the whole show, not just a neighborhood filled with temporary ignorant do-gooders.

As for compassion, nice word but limited in its uses. Only an imbecile could have compassion for someone who rapes a child and then buries her alive. A true Buddhist would be completely neutral on such things (equanimity).

Finally, what self?

Tom Armstrong said...

Common Sense,

I think there's wisdom in what you write, but some of it nettles me for reasons I'm not altogether sure of.

I'm resistant to the concepts of "real Buddhism" or a "true Buddhist" response -- heavily problematic ideas.

The "problem" with dumb things we do is that we should at least learn from them, or be aware of them, or try to understand why we think they might be dumb. As I wrote, giving ourselves a pass passes up the opportunity to deal with ourself, it seems to me.

Plus, I think having compassion for a person who has done something extremely dastardly is very possible, even as I wince at the idea a bit.

Common sense said...

The concept of compassion is nice, good, however it is not the ‘highest good’ and its use in certain circumstances can be an example of losing direction just as when people attach to anger.

In the past we can look at the advent of Christianity in the West as being good, because the prevailing insanity in Judaism and many other religions a couple of thousand years ago was child sacrifice. However, looking at other events over the past couple of thousand years we can see that Christianity has in no way represented the highest good.

The popularity of compassion in recent times is no doubt a good thing, stemming from the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism and the fact that it is not completely alien to Western society although it has generally been a somewhat rare expression.

As for compassion for all, it doesn’t work, otherwise our houses, offices, restaurants and hospitals would be overrun by roaches, rats, and stray cats and dogs. There has to be some wisdom behind its use and the criterion of whether it is deserved in any particular situation.

The mention of ‘real Buddhism’ can be expected to raise a few eyebrows because there are now so many varieties of Buddhism using the same words with different interpretations that it needs to be pointed out that there was only one Buddha and one message.

This message is concerned with true nature, not social popularity, earning a living, selling books, and the rest of what ignorant societies engage in.

Common sense said...

My teacher told me that as love and compassion are essentially mundane qualities we have to use them with wisdom.

He said that in Thailand one of the local 'customs' is to leave unwanted pets outside the Wat gates at night. Then, in the morning when the gates are opened, they can just stroll in.

About once a month he used to collect all of these strays, put them in sacks, get a driver to take him up the road for about 5 kms, and then let them go; wishing them all good luck in finding a new home.

On one of these occasions, one of the nuns let all of these pets loose as the Ajarn went to get a driver, saying that he was cold hearted and lacking in compassion.

A few days later the local council dog catcher came and rounded up all the stray cats and dogs in the Wat, around 40 of them; no need to guess what happened to them later that day.

Tom Armstrong said...

Love and compassion are spiritually vital; I wouldn't call them "mundane."

The answer to an overabundance of tame puppies and kittens is to neuter dogs and cats.

Knowing the right thing to do is, certainly, important.

"Emotional empathy," by itself, doesn't direct us toward doing the right thing.

Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Chan, famously taught that compassion and wisdom, together, are a potent combo. They are splendid at directing our behavior and leading us to enlightenment.

Common sense said...

Dear Tom, I would have to agree with what Hui Neng said about compassion and wisdom being a potent combo leading us towards enlightenment (but not to), but they are not enlightenment itself, hence my teacher's (and others) interpretation of love and compassion as being mundane.

As your link points out, compassion is a human emotion. However, enlightenment goes beyond emotions and not just humanity but all realms.

As for the reference to The Buddha and Ananda, it is a nice story that fits in with ordinary (and might I add mediocre) human interpretations of Buddhism, somewhat like some Christians thinking of god as an old guy with a long white beard who lives in the sky.

As most people are aware, love and compassion just happen to be the finer points of samsara, they are not enlightenment, which is free from samsara. Therein lies the difference.

Tom Armstrong said...

Common sense: Interesting comment thread!

Agreed that compassion & wisdom aren't enlightenment. But Nagarjuna, for one, maintained that "Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood." And by "properly understood" I understand him to mean in the glow of enlightenment.

How ever we compartmentalize or categorize compassion it's pretty spiffy stuff!

If we were all fully compassionate -- forgot ourselves and highly valued others -- enlightenment would fill the sky. [In such a circumstance we wouldn't need wisdom to 'restrain' our compassion.]

Common sense said...

Dear Tom, yes, compassion is an interesting phenomenon, and I think its use should be by degrees determined by wisdom. For example, in some cases it might imply that we have sympathy for someone and can thus use it in a sense of friendliness, whereas in the case of a child killer we would not wish to show friendliness to such a person, yet out of compassion we would not wish them to be put to death for their crime.

This brings up another social issue, that society as a whole needs to be more compassionate towards those who perhaps deserve the death sentence. Not only because it is more compassionate but also because taking someones life does not resolve the situation.

It is far better to keep someone alive so that they may eventually see their faults rather than having them eventually come back again and repeat their misdeeds.

Common sense said...

Note: From what I said earlier I suppose I just called myself an imbecile. However, I dont think that not giving a death sentence to a criminal who probably deserves it is really compassion, it is simply respect for life, the first precept.

However, for those of the 'an eye for an eye' mentality it could be regarded as compassion.

They call him James Ure said...

I am one who needs to focus on sending my self compassion because I'm off-balanced more often than not toward too much self-criticism. The Middle-Way is such an enlightened teaching.

As for a "true Buddhism" I tend to resist that kind of talk too. Especially when the Buddha spoke of the 84,000 paths. Besides, we've already done the Theravada vs. Mahayana schism for too long.

As the Great Physician, he prescribed 84,000 antidotes for the 84,000 afflictions of living beings. All contribute to putting an end to our ignorance.

Each person I believe is bound to follow a slightly different path than the next being. Even within one single tradition such as Zen for example. This is in part due to our different needs based on our karma.

My weaknesses and strengths are different than that of others and so on. What is most important I believe between all these various paths are: Taking refuge in the three jewels, belief in the Four Nobles Truths and following the Eight-fold Path. As well as doing our best to live the Five Precepts. That's my opinion for what it's worth.